We have many cycles rising and falling in our year. Ancient peoples had but one, combining them all. Granting considerable overlap of holidays and seasons, we nonetheless have many calendars operating independently of each other. There is the school year, with its special punctuation – Christmas vacation, winter vacation, spring vacation, summer vacation, exams and report cards, fairs and competitions, end-of-the-year ceremonies, dances and proms, and graduation, which comes with its own traditional music, costume, cliches, and ceremony.
There is the sports calendar. Life begins on Opening Day of baseball, according to Tom Boswell, and so ends with March Madness, I suppose. In between there are not only the seasons of three major sports – including playoffs, drafts, off-season moves – but minor sports as well, each with their own devotees. These sports have identifiable associated costumes, foods, music, ceremonies, shrines, histories, and authorities. And that’s just the professional, spectator sports. Add in more calendar dates for kid’s sports and participatory sports. Fishing season. Ski season.
I haven’t even really gotten started with calendars. We have a national calendar, with civic and patriotic dates, each associated with special foods, colors…you get the idea. Plus a cultural calendar, with Hallowe’en, Valentine’s Day…work calendars, different in every industry, but powerful for those living in fiscal years or seasonal busy-ness…whatever is left of the religious calendar, which especially has identifiable foods, music, themes, and history…seasons of weather and of agriculture…Old Home Days and county fairs…family calendars of birthdays, anniversaries, and usual vacations…election cycles, Olympic years. The themes of anticipation, production, celebration, with a tear in the eye, nostalgic music, and comfort foods fill them all.
And within these are the cycles of weekday and weekend 52 times, beginnings and ends of months, often important.
What if all these cycles coincided and reinforced each other? What if everyone in the culture shared most of them and celebrated them together? I doubt we can even imagine very well, nor feel with similar intensity, what it would be like if all of this energy were put into one shared package, so that harvest festival was also religious festival was also family festival was also national festival. Yet this was the life that all our ancestors lived until a very few centuries ago.
With that picture in mind, let’s add hunger (some chronic, some from fasting), pilgrimage, infrequent communication with relatives…let’s step into that frame.
You are walking or riding to Jerusalem for one of the major yearly festivals, so you are tired, hungry, and dusty before you even get there. On the plus side, you are looking forward to seeing relatives, and tucking in to some of Aunt Martha’s seasoned lamb. Uncle Jacob is known to have a pretty free hand with the wine as well, and folks will talk and laugh far into the night. If you were a married female, moved to be with your husband’s family, this would have even more meaning, seeing sisters, parents, grown children who live away. Adolescents would have the mixed excitement/apprehension of potential betrothals – a key use of festival times. Along the road, travelers will occasionally sing the appropriate songs and psalms – the local variations from your village.
However much you may fear that God might be displeased with something you are or have done, you have complete assurance you are right in this. You are going where He wants, at the time He chose. You are going to the place He visits, or even partly dwells, and following in the steps of a thousand ancestors. Psalm 42:4 These things I remember as I pour out my soul: how I used to go with the multitude, leading the procession to the house of God, with shouts of joy and thanksgiving among the festive throng. There is the long ascent to the Temple, the psalms being sung with increasing agreement as the many families and villages come in, adjusting to each other’s order and variations. By the time you are halfway up, everyone in front of you is pretty much in concert, the whole mountainside singing the same words and moving forward.
You see the Temple, you sing the psalms, so this is a religious experience, focused on God. But the anticipation of seasoned lamb and seeing your little sister flit through your mind as well. There are foods brought for sacrifice alongside, and you are hungry, but soon you will eat. You reach the crest with the tired exhilaration that comes from an arduous physical task accomplished, and the camaraderie that comes from doing it with others. The sound of the musicians becomes clear, 288 trained, fulltime musicians, lifetime appointment, very skilled and heavy on the percussion, as you enter the courtyard, singing together. Don't think slow, peaceful Gregorian Chant - think marching band or military drums, Middle-Eastern style.
The priest or choir chants, the people roar response. Inside the Temple is cooler, incense-filled, wildly decorated. Every word is rarely used but completely memorised. You see Uncle Jacob across the way, arms raised, ecstatic, but eyes open. He notices you and winks.
Now that’s worship. And that’s a lot closer to heaven than cartoons of bored angels standing on clouds and holding harps.